As a White woman working in urban mission with children of color from 1994 to 2008, with a volunteer staff consisting overwhelmingly of White women, I struggled for images of liberation and leadership that fit our experience. The archetypal Bible story of liberation from oppression is, of course, the Exodus. But White people of privilege cannot be Moses to the children we work with: we do not come from their own community, and we cannot wish or will that difference away. As I wrestled with the scriptural story, I found an archetype that powerfully spoke to me, in the person of Pharaoh’s daughter.
Many times during the years I was Children’s Missioner at our downtown parish, I found myself telling her story, and last night, at the Faith Study Group I now lead in a different parish, I found myself telling it again, in light of the urgent concern over racial polarization that now grips our nation. It’s a troubling and deeply ambiguous story; because Pharaoh’s daughter was one of the oppressors, but moved with pity for baby Moses, she brought him into her own privileged world. And instead of being grateful, he ran away, and then he and his God came back and wreaked terrible vengeance on the oppressors.
Is there another way? Can we break the endless cycle of oppression and revenge? Can we help in a way that leads to reconciliation, and not to more domination and resentment? Can we find the humility to serve as Jesus does, with no agenda at all, except to honor what is in each of God’s children?
Once upon a time, there was a princess.
She was the daughter of a king—a great and terrible king, who ruled over the mighty kingdom of Egypt—and his name was Pharaoh.
And Pharaoh king of Egypt went up and down throughout his kingdom, to see if all was well in the land, and the people orderly and obedient.
And in the kingdom of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, there lived a people who were different from the Egyptians: the people of the Hebrews. For many years they had lived in the land of Goshen, and now they had become very numerous, and filled the land of Goshen.
And when Pharaoh saw how numerous the Hebrew people had become, he was displeased. So he turned against them, and made them his slaves. He made them do hard labor. He made them build his cities. And he tried to take away their children.
And the princess, Pharaoah’s daughter, grew up in her father’s palace, while the Hebrew slaves labored under slavedrivers day and night, and she thought nothing of it. She grew to be a lovely young woman, while the Hebrew slaves built her father’s cities, and she thought nothing of it. She feasted and danced and sang, while her father’s officers and guardsmen raided the Hebrew villages and the cries of the mothers and the children rose into the night, and she thought nothing of it.
And one day, the princess went down the the river Nile to bathe.
And as she bent down to dip her head into the water, she saw her own face reflected in the water, but out of the corner of her eye she saw something move among the reeds by the riverbank. So she raised her head and looked, and she saw that there was a basket floating on the water. She waded through the water to the place where the basket was, and as she drew near, she heard the cries of a little baby. She opened the basket and looked in, and there, wrapped in torn linen rags, was a little Hebrew baby, three months old, and it was crying with hunger and distress.
Pharaoh’s daughter reached into the basket and picked the baby up. This was the first time she had ever seen a Hebrew child. She held the baby up on her shoulder, and it stopped crying and began mouthing its fists and butting its head against her neck, looking for food. The princess stood there in the water, with her feet sinking into the mud on the river bottom, and the reeds tangling around her ankles, and she looked about her, wondering what to do. Then she looked again, and saw a skinny little girl hiding among the reeds.
“Do you know anything about this baby?” the princess asked the little girl. “Do you know whose it is?”
The little girl was old enough to have learned from her mother never to tell the truth to an Egyptian. So she did not tell the princess that the baby was her little brother. She did not tell the princess how Pharaoh’s guardsmen raided the Hebrew villages, snatching the baby boys as the mothers screamed and moaned—or how the mothers sat, afterwards, day after day, unspeaking, staring at nothing. She did not tell the princess how her mother had hidden the baby till she could hide him no longer, and then had set him adrift rather than wait for the guardsmen to find him at last.
The skinny little girl looked the princess right in the eye. “You like him? Wanna keep him? I’ll find you a good nurse.”
Pharaoh’s daughter shifted the baby round and held him up. He opened his eyes. They were dark, dark brown.
“Yes, go find a nurse. Tell her I will pay her well.”
So the skinny little girl went, and brought her mother.
And Pharaoh’s daughter took the baby home to the royal palace, and she named him Moses. Every day, the princess sat him on her knee, and rocked him, and sang to him, and told him stories. And every day his mother came to the palace—through the back door—and nursed him, and sang to him, and told him stories. But after he was weaned, she did not come any longer, and Moses was raised as a member of the royal household. And the princess loved him very much, especially because she had saved him from her father’s guardsmen. And she looked around and saw how the Egyptians were oppressing the Hebrews, and she said to herself, “I cannot save them all. But at least I have saved this one.”
So Moses grew, and he learned to read, and to write, and to count and figure. He learned how to calculate the rising and the setting of the sun and predict the changes of the moon; and how to make a building so strong that it would outlast a hundred lifetimes; and how to sail a ship on the Nile and how to shoot a straight arrow from a chariot drawn by a galloping horse.
And when Moses was grown up, he walked up and down in Egypt, and saw how the Egyptians were oppressing the Hebrews, and his heart grew hard and bitter with anger.
He saw an overseer beating a Hebrew slave, and he flew into a rage, and killed the overseer, and buried him in the sand.
He saw two Hebrews fighting each other, and he came between them, and tried to persuade them to make peace. But they were afraid that he would kill them, as he had killed the Egyptian, and they would not listen to him.
And Moses grew confused and afraid, and he ran away, into the desert.
And Moses became a shepherd on the holy mountain, and there the God of Israel called to him from the burning bush, and sent him back to Egypt, to set the people free.
And when Moses came back to Egypt, and strode into Pharaoh’s throne room, with his face burning with the fire of God, what was in the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter?
And when Pharaoh hardened his heart, and the plagues passed through Egypt—storms and sickness, darkness and death—what was in the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter?
And when the Angel of Death claimed all the firstborn of Egypt, and in every house there was screaming and moaning—what was in the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter?
And when Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, and across the Red Sea into freedom, with walls of water to the right hand of them and to the left hand of them, and Pharaoh’s army pursued them, all his chosen captains and chariot drivers, and Moses spoke the word, and the waters came back, and drowned her father’s army—what was in the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter?
“I have not saved just one of them. I have saved them all. And at what cost? At what cost?”
(c) copyright by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.
The illustration is by Edmund Dulac, 1926, retrieved from http://poulwebb.blogspot.com/2013/12/edmund-dulac-part-6.html